Property and Intellectual Property in Vaccine Markets

Ana Santos Rutschman, Saint Louis University School of Law


As biopharmaceutical forms of technology, vaccines constitute one of the most important tools for the promotion and maintenance of public health. Tolstoy famously wrote that “[h]appy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Vaccine markets offer perhaps one of the most extreme embodiments of Tolstoy’s principle in the field of biopharmaceutical innovation. Vaccines are often described as one of the most unprofitable types of biopharmaceutical goods, under-incentivized from a research and development (R&D) perspective, and routinely failing to attract sufficient investment from traditional funders in biopharma. In this sense, and despite the scientifically well-established value of vaccines from a public health perspective, vaccine markets are often portrayed as a collection of unhappy families. Yet, at least throughout the developed world, there are plenty of examples of steadily profitable vaccine markets, as is the case of recently developed vaccines targeting the human papilloma virus (HPV).

The Essay begins by mapping this dualism in vaccine R&D and commercialization, describing both “happy” and “unhappy” markets. It then connects the development of new vaccines with the default legal regime to promote innovation in the biopharmaceutical arena: the patent system. In exploring possible solutions for transactional problems arising in connection with the development of vaccine technology in the context of infectious disease outbreaks, the Essay asks whether the rights covering vaccine technologies are best understood as property rights or as something else. This inquiry is of course but a fragment of a much larger interrogation of the nature and mechanics of intellectual property systems: are intellectual property rights—and rights arising out of the grant of patents in particular—more like property or akin to something else? Arguing that under the current non-committal position of the Supreme Court there is room for understandings of patent rights that are not property-centric, the Essay concludes by exploring how less property-like protection—in the form of a liability regime for critical components of vaccine technology—can remove some of the most salient transactional obstacles to the development and commercialization of new vaccines targeting infectious disease pathogens like Ebola, Zika and COVID-19.